Mr. Baseball

A Friday afternoon at work. The heat is making me think about November. I guess we are never quite satisfied. Always contemplating cooler days in July. Warmer days in January.

An F250 pulls into the holding yard. A customer told me that he was sending a guy to pick up a few trees. I figure it will be some young buck with scruffy chin hair. I can see through my window that this guy is not young. Thick white hair showing around the edge of his baseball cap. Stout. Square chin. He’s wearing shorts. His calves are thick. His button up shirt has a coffee stain on the front the size of West Point Lake.

He walks into the office. I am clueless about how interesting my afternoon is about to become.

I sometimes daydream a little about total strangers. Sitting in a restaurant and wondering who the guy is sitting at the table across from me. I know nothing about him, but I speculate. Maybe he used to be the sound guy for the Allman Brothers. Maybe he’s an actor who played one of the saloon guys in a western with Robert Duvall. You never know whom you might run across on any given ordinary day.

I open the door. We shake hands and exchange introductions. I invite him to take a seat. I talk about his trees. He talks about retirement. Just the normal meet and greet conversation between strangers.

I dig a little bit. Probing is what I do.

“So, Frank, what’d you do before you retired?”

“Well, I was a baseball guy. I was GM of the Boston Red Sox my last four years.”

“You mean, like, David Ortiz? Those Red Sox?”

“Yeah, but I came after Papi retired.”

I was mesmerized. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would sit in the same room with an MLB top executive with a coffee stain on his shirt.

Turns out that Frank Wren played in the minors for six years for Montreal. A brain tumor ended his career on the field, but he transitioned to the front office with the Expos back in the day. After that, he spent several years with the Marlins and helped take them across the finish-line in the ‘97 World Series. They beat my Braves in the LCS that post-season to get there. I would rather drink colonoscopy prep-juice than cheer for the Marlins. Ever.

After Miami, he worked a very short stent as the GM of the Baltimore Orioles. I read where he ordered the team plane to take off without Cal Ripken, who was stuck in traffic trying to get to the airport. Apparently, his tough, no-nonsense management style did not set well in Baltimore.

Then, and here is where I fell out of my chair, he spent 15 seasons with the Braves. He came to Atlanta in ’99 and worked as the assistant GM to John Schuerholz. In 2008 he moved into the top GM spot and worked six more seasons with my favorite boys of summer.

For the next 90 minutes we talked baseball. I openly admit that our visit turned into a complete goof-off afternoon for me. I had a million questions. He had a million stories.

We talked about Freddie. Frank was the one who signed Freddie with the Braves. I had to ask about losing Freddie. He talked for a long time about the relationship between players and agents. “Sometimes it takes a player getting burned before he realizes that he needs to take control of his own fate.” Braves country is still torn about that one.

The Braves were at an away game. Frank was out for a morning jog. His phone rings and it’s Chipper. Holy Cannoli! This guy actually talks to Chipper Jones. Chipper was in a slump. He’s talking about maybe it’s time to walk away from baseball. Frank goes to Chipper’s room at the hotel and talks him into holding on for a while longer. The next home series, Chipper’s bat explodes like fireworks on the Fourth, and he stays two more years.

“He was the best pure hitter I ever saw. And I saw a lot of hitters.”

No kidding.

I didn’t want our visit to end. “So, what’s one of your favorite baseball stories?

He took about two seconds to think about it.

“Greg Maddox,” he said.

I took my cap off. Laid it on the desk and leaned back. Arms folded.

“We were playing out of town. The weather was perfect. You could smell baseball in the air. Me and John and Pam, Bobby’s wife would normally sit in a sky box, but this particular game we were sitting in the front row right behind the dugout.”

“Maddox is one of the smartest pitchers I’ve ever known. He always had a plan. I mean, he mapped out nearly every pitch with every batter before he ever took the mound. And before the game, he’d go over his plan with Bobby.”

“Now, Bobby is a little scatter-brained. I don’t mean anything bad by that. He just didn’t always have the ability to focus. Well, Maddox is laying out his plan with Bobby. He’s explaining his strategy. Here’s how I’m gonna work this guy, and this guy. Going over all his pitches.”

Greg is telling Bobby, “Now look, if I get into any trouble at all in the late innings and a heavy hitter comes up, I’m gonna pop him up to the left side of the infield. Don’t worry. I can get us out of a jam.” And all along Bobby is nodding, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But it’s all just going right over the top of his head.”

“Well, sure ‘nough, Maddox is in a little bit of trouble in the late innings. I’m whispering to John that Bobby needs to take Maddox out. I can’t say anything too loud. Pam is sitting right next to me. I got to be careful what I say about Bobby. Next thing I know Leo Mazzone is headed out to the mound.”

I had to contribute something. “You mean rocking Mazzone?”

“The very same. Anyways, I’m complaining to John. Leo can’t make a pitching change. I can see Bobby standing on the top step. I’m trying not to embarrass myself in front of Pam. The hottest hitter in the league is coming up. We need to pull Maddox. He’s lost his edge and Bobby’s not doing anything about it.”

I’m wishing I had a bag of peanuts. “What’d you do?”

“Humph! Nothing. I sat there. Maddox throws a low one inside. I’m sweating bullets. Two guys in scoring position. We’re holding on to a one run lead with two outs. The league’s RBI leader is about to make us pay.”

I’m covering my eyes. I can’t look.

“You know what Maddox did? Next pitch, he popped him up to the left side of the infield and we got out of the inning. Can you believe that? He told Bobby what he was gonna do, and he did it. Darnedest thing I ever saw.”

I pretended I knew baseball. “That’s like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield with his bat.”

“You’re darn toot’n it is. But that’s Greg Maddox for ya’.”

Hopping Jehoshaphat, I love me some baseball!

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